It is true that we learn more and more about the beneficial effects of the substances contained in cannabis. Yet still few people know where the secret of the characteristic smell, taste and colour of this plant lies. Terpenes, a large class of organic compounds found not only in cannabis, give the plant its unique smell and taste, but recently it has also started to attract scientists’ attention because of their unusual properties and therapeutic applications.
Let’s start from the beginning. Terpenes are aromatic chemicals produced by many plants, including hemp. They can also be found in cinnamon, resin, ginger and even essential oils – shortly speaking, in plants which are characterized by intense, captivating aroma. In the case of cannabis, terpenes are responsible for the unique smell of flowering flowers or smoke.
The molecular construction of the terpenes is no mystery. They are five-atom hydrocarbon volatile organic compounds of general formula (C5H8)n. Terpene molecules contain isoprene, and the smallest of them (monoterpenes) are a result of biosynthesis of two molecules. Terpenes are divided into types – we distinguish open-chain and ring terpenes, and they can be also divided into groups according to their size – this way we distinguish, for example, sesquiterpenes, diterpenes, triterpenes, and even tetraterpenes.
The name of these compounds is derived from turpentine, which in nature is a constituent of conifer resins – the sharp, crisp smell of this colourless and slightly water-soluble substance is certainly known to all painting aficionados.
Types of terpenes occurring in cannabis
Cannabis is extremely rich in terpenes. The structure of these compounds is very similar (from a chemical point of view) to cannabinoids, equally impressive is their number in cannabis – specialists can distinguish over one hundred types. Here are the most important ones:
- Myrcene – this monoterpenic compound remains the main, most commonly found ingredient in cannabis oils. The construction of this terpene (C10H16) deserves attention due to its instability in contact with air and poor water solubility. Myrcene can also be found in hops, caraway, clover or sage, among many other plants and herbs.
- Pinene – This bicarbonate monoterpene is also used in the perfumery industry. All thanks to the extraordinary scent characteristics, which are also used as an insect repellent,
- Limonene – another compound found in cannabis is responsible for the characteristic, sour smell of lemons. Because of its aroma, it is actively used in the production of perfumes, cosmetics and air fresheners,
- Linalool – is a mixture of licareol and coriandrol with intense, convective fragrance. Like pinene, linalool has insect repellent properties. The floral fragrance makes the compound a valuable ingredient in perfume,
- Eucalyptol – Terpene obtained from eucalyptus, wormwood or rosemary oil. It is characterized by fresh mint fragrance, so that – like other terpenes – can be used in the production of cosmetics,
Caryophyllene – a mixture of α-caryophyllene / humulene, β-cariophyllene and caryophyllene oxide. It has spicy, almost “peppery”, sharp aroma – it is responsible for the smell of cloves and black pepper. It is also worth noting that β-cariophyllene shows very promising therapeutical properties and is believed to be one of the most non-cannabinoid compounds in hemp extracts.
Terpenes – properties and application
Not only smell, not just taste, not just colour. A number of terpenes in nature is enormous – scientists estimate there are more than 20,000 different kinds of them in the plants. They help plants protect themselves against bacteria, fungi and pests.
Thanks to their aromatic properties, terpenes are irreplaceable in cosmetics industry – used extensively in the production of perfumes, they are an essential part of the fragrances we use every day. They are also used in the food and pharmaceutical industries – they appear in food flavours and even in medicines.
Thanks to the therapeutic properties, aromas that facilitate the absorption, and their newly discovered synergy with cannabinoids, the terpenes contained in hemp are excellent for herbal treatments.
There is no doubt that there are many valuable substances in cannabis – the health benefits of cannabinoids are being researched better and better every week. It is possible that they will soon be joined by terpenes, for a long time only associated with their taste and aroma.